Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Disjointed Musings Somewhat Related To Gone With The Wind


I touched on this topic a bit way back in August in relation to the work of Bette Davis and the ways an audience might respond to the characters she played in so many films; women that were generally either victims or villains, but always, in the end, independent and strong-willed. Gone With The Wind presents perhaps the best example of that kind of character with Scarlett O'Hara. For much of the film she is spoiled and insufferable. Yet throughout, she's the kind of active protagonist that women almost never were allowed to be in real life at that time. Her manipulations and machinations and her determination in rebuilding of her fortune after the war are hardly the acts of a passive victim, which allows her to be viewed as a kind of anti-heroine. She's not always admirable, but you end up rooting for her anyway. This is part of the complex relationship the film has with feminism. Is Scarlett a worthy object of identification? What about the scene where Rhett drags Scarlett to bed under protest: is it rape or is she just playing really hard to get? What does the film actually say about women, and if it's ultimately negative, why is it still the most popular "women's film" of all-time? Is it because all women secretly hate all other women and like to see one get punished (especially one that dares to stand out from the crowd)? And whatever happened to the women's film, anyway?

I'll Never Go Hungry Again!

From the 1930s through the 1950s, one of the most perennially popular of all film genres was the melodrama, the so-called "women's films" that jerked tears and gave stars like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Olivia DeHavilland, Margaret Sullavan, Jane Wyman and dozens of other actresses meaty roles in which horrible, horrible things kept happening to them. Tragic affairs, sudden attacks of blindness, and ungrateful daughters were only some of the perils of the melodrama. But sometime around the 1960s, these films disappeared or morphed into other forms. Partly, the blame can be laid at the foot of the television soap opera, which offered much the same lunatic blend of hysteria and emotional catharsis. But not completely, for the melodrama has yet to make a comeback in the post-soap world.

One of the most deplorable transformations the melodrama has suffered is that it has become a sub-category of the social problem film, the most hateful of all genres wherein the audience is lectured about some ill in the world and made to think that by the very act of watching said film, they have done their part to solve it. Many of these films (Erin Brokovich, Norma Rae, Silkwood, The Blind Side, North Country, etc) have female protagonists and present the kind of strong women that are largely absent from screens today but which used to dominate the melodrama genre. However, that doesn't make the movies any more bearable. On the other hand, at least those films (and roles for actresses) are still being made. One of the most venerable of melodramatic forms, the romantic drama (along the lines of Brief Encounter), has almost ceased to exist. We're instead flooded with romantic "comedies" in which the main characters (male and female both) act like (and increasingly are) teenagers.

Tomorrow Is Another Day!

This is most obvious in the film that most closely resembles Gone With The Wind: James Cameron's 1997 film Titanic. Both films were massive hits and award winners, Gone With The Wind being the highest-grossing inflation-adjusted film of all-time, and Titanic being the highest grossing in actual money. Both are historical epics that were the most expensive movies ever made at the time of their release. Both are, at their heart, romances with active female protagonists and non-conformist male heroes. The vital difference, I think, is that Gone With The Wind is about adults, about the process of maturation (Scarlett gets married a few times, has a kid, sees everything she had burn to the ground and builds it up again). Titanic is about kids, teenagers in love for the first time whose greatest ambition is to ignore the responsibilities of adulthood in favor of some vaguely romantic notion of "freedom" (and Billy Zane avoidance). Even the old lady at the end of the film acts like a child, what with throwing a ridiculously valuable diamond overboard (doesn't she care about her daughter's mortgage? her grandkids' college funds??) because she thinks material possessions are a bummer or something. We don't seem to get stories about adults from Hollywood anymore. Whether this is because of some baby boomer obsession with staying young and immature forever that has infected all aspects of American life, or just because teenagers (boys and girls) go to the movies a lot more often than their parents and grandparents do, I can't say. Maybe I'm just getting old, but these kids today with their vampires and notebooks and Nancy Meyers movies sure do make me want to shake my fist in righteous indignation. Harumph. Let them have their kiddie movies. Frankly, I don't give a damn.


michele1347 said...

Here's my somewhat disjointed comment...

I think one thing that has changed is the actual biology of women. Women can control whether or not sex will lead to a pregnancy, which isn't something they could as easily do before then. And it's not something most of us can even begin to appreciate, because most of us haven't been alive long enough to really understand the difference.

But In the sixties everything changed. The Pill came along, and with that came control. Biology was no longer Destiny. No longer did having sex mean that you might get pregnant... The consequences of having sex simply weren't as profound.

And, so, the movies changed too. There isn't that same fight and passion and struggle and submission, because... Meh? It's just sex. It's not life and death anymore (and I say, thank goodness for that).

Perhaps that's why the only melodramas involve teens, like you pointed out with Titanic. The only time that really matters like it used to is the first time.

sean said...

That's a great point, one I hadn't thought of. I certainly would hope there's still drama in adult relationships though, and , of course, even with the Pill, there are always ungrateful children and deadly diseases to melodramatize.

The sex issue is especially interesting in relation to the crazy way Gone With The Wind deals with Scarlett's sexuality. Watching it last night, the aftermath of Rhett draging her to bed is remarkable, considering it's essentially rape. After the fade-to-black, the next scene is her waking up in bed looking completely satisfied for the first time (that we've seen). It's only then she realizes how much she loves Rhett (we can be certain that Ashley could never make her look that happy) and it's then the film turns tragic as all her previous misdeeds conspire to drive him away from her.

You get the feeling that the reason she's been so evil for most of her life is that she had no understanding of what sex was supposed to be. The fact that it's the arguable "rape" that leads to her awakening is both perverse and can easily be read as offensive (which is how my wife sees it).

michele1347 said...

That's definitely true, and it's something that's even more clear in the book: for most of her life she had no understanding of what sex was supposed to be. In fact, in the book, when Rhett asks her to become his mistress, the first thing she says is, "What would I get out of that but a passel of brats?" When he eventually asks her to marry him, she objects because marriage means "a baby every year." It's so weird to think that THAT really was what marriage meant a few years ago...

Was that scene where Rhett carries her upstairs rape? Yes, by today's standards. Maybe because of the Women's Movement we're much more sensitive to what is and isn't rape, and it's not romanticized anymore. Yeah, it's really hard to imagine a modern movie where the heroine wakes up singing the next day after she's been forced into sex! : D

Perhaps, though-- and I am going sound like Camille Paglia here-- sex IS better when things are wilder and untamed. And we have all these feminist studies and stories and propaganda that tells us how horribly damaging all unsolicited sexual encounters are for women, ad infinitum... But is that really true? Are we all so freaking fragile?

So there's no way for me to really say this without someone being able to accuse me of being irresponsible-- and perhaps they'd be right. I've never been raped. But I do think that some of the fun and wildness and romance is gone from sex because we're all so sensitized. And we're asking for permission all the time, for everything. The best kiss I certainly ever had was one where the guy didn't ask me, didn't hesitate, just took me and-- Yowza.

That said though, it was just a kiss. And that's all it ever was.

I wonder this-- would we even be talking nostalgically about how "things have changed" IF we were talking about MEN? Like this, okay: Most guys don't want to go to prison because of what happens in the showers. Most men know that's rape, and they don't want to be raped. Well... What if, before 1965 or so, most movies where some guy gets sent to prison have some shower scene in them with melodrama and romantic music and then it fades to black? And then the guy wakes up singing in his bunk the next day? Seems pretty obvious now that that's sick, right? : D

Yeah, I don't know anything. But it's fun to talk about.